Skip to main content

Housing (Hertfordshire)

Volume 459: debated on Wednesday 18 April 2007

It is delightful to be here this afternoon under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton.

As Conservatives, we agree that there is a need for more homes that are affordable, well designed and, more importantly, environmentally sustainable. In Hertfordshire, we accept that we must provide more houses based on local need and an acceptable level of sustainable growth, reflecting what the community wants and based on a prudent assessment of our particular environmental capacity while acknowledging our infrastructure stresses and deficits. After much consideration and a degree of pressure from the Government, the original east of England plan eventually proposed 79,600 dwellings—a figure about which I still have some serious environmental concerns. On balance, however, the community was willing to try to deliver that figure.

The Government appear determined to ignore the carefully considered proposals of the local community and to ratchet up the totals. We were prepared to accept our fair share of housing, but we dispute the new and ever-escalating housing figures that are being imposed top down by the Government.

I speak for many, including my local councils that have written to the Minister only this month, when I say that I am deeply unhappy about the processes and assessments—or rather lack of assessments—that have culminated in the double whammy of an inspector’s report advocating a new higher figure of 83,000 dwellings and the Secretary of State now seeking to impose a further 10,000 units on top of that already overly high number. To have truly environmentally sustainable communities, we cannot look only at the method of construction of new buildings. Let us not confuse the difference between housing demand and housing need. Yes, we have a degree of local housing need, but we live in a prosperous high demand area that, in turn, fuels an ever-increasing spiral of house prices that encourages speculative development and a booming buy-to-let market with investors holding large property portfolios.

Developers are encouraged by the Government’s inflationary approach to housing figures. They appreciate their creative approach to the green belt boundary reviews and are egged on by pronouncements regarding future household and population growth and an increasingly benign planning system. They proceed to cut swathes through established communities, challenge historic street scenes and skylines, and market our green belt as building plots. Little consideration is given to the wishes of local people and their vision for their communities. Housing density and the Government’s targets are driving the relentless push to demolish older characterful houses, snatching up back gardens, gobbling up green spaces and targeting playing fields such as the King Harry playing fields in my constituency.

High density is being interpreted as flats and, consequently, housing choice has been diminished, not enhanced, as family homes come down and blocks of flats rise up. The result is a rapidly changing street scene, huge increases in congestion, increasing pressure on schools, hospitals and natural resources, and a loss of local community spirit. When calculating the increased totals, the Minister does not seem even to have taken into account the particular economic activity of our area and its employment opportunities. The Office for National Statistics labour force, resident and workplace survey of 2001 estimated that 68,681 people live in the area of St. Albans, yet only 51,206 people work there. That position contributes to huge numbers of people who commute daily on congested roads and on trains that are crammed in cattle-truck conditions.

According to the most recent east of England plan, the projected job growth for the whole of Hertfordshire until 2021 is 64,700, yet the Minister wishes to place 93,000 units there. According to the Office for National Statistics’ unemployment data figures, we are fortunate to have a current regional unemployment rate of 20 per cent. below the United Kingdom average unemployment rate and, in St. Albans, the current unemployment rate is 46 per cent. less than the UK average unemployment rate. We have low unemployment and a highly skilled work force that looks to London and neighbouring cities for its employment. The high house prices mean that that situation is liable to continue and that more market-led housing will only compound the current trend to buy into our county and commute.

We are therefore naturally concerned that the Government, through their lack of rigorous analysis at every level, are indeed fuelling a property-led project, thus encouraging commuting, putting strain on local transport systems and not creating balanced, sustainable communities supported by local jobs, underpinned by adequate infrastructure and sympathetic to the local environment.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent exposition of the weaknesses in the Government’s policy. Is she also aware that the loosening of green belt and the replacement of one site for another—perhaps Hertfordshire with Cambridgeshire, which Government policy now allows—is directly encouraging speculative development on green fields? Fields in my constituency are being pegged out now by speculators on the basis of the Government’s new policy. Is she aware of that and what does she think about it?

I raised that point in our last debate on this matter. We suffer in exactly the same way. Property developers are placing Government pronouncements on their websites to encourage people to hope that there is value in buying up such pieces of green land.

Unless we are going to bow down to the god of ever-increasing prosperity at the expense of ever-decreasing quality of life, we must ensure that an environmental impact of continually escalating housing targets is rigorously assessed. If we are to avoid fuelling a transport-intensive, pollution-generating commuter hell, then we must take account of local economic activity and ensure that we are not building more and more houses that are developer-led but not necessarily the type of homes that local people want or particularly need. Inevitably, it is leading to swathes of high-density, flatted developments dominating our towns and villages which are frequently snapped up by property developers. The Government and the Minister seem to draw great comfort from coupling the huge increase in building with newly introduced targets for energy consumption, recycling and water use. I am sorry to disabuse them of that environmental comfort blanket, but noting the concern and allocating the problem a target will not resolve it, and it does not address the current status quo.

In my constituency water is currently at a critical point. We have important chalk streams, which are sensitive to the increased pressures to build. Does the Minister know that the chalk streams in our area are unique in Europe? They are recognised by eminent environmentalists as the European aquatic equivalent of the rain forest. She has a chance to respond, but does not do so.

The future of the streams is already under severe threat due to drought. That more water is extracted from the Ver area of recharge than is naturally returned to its aquifer by annual rainfall is incredibly worrying and already a source of deep concern to local environmentalists, who care about the environment and have written to the Minister on that point. Therefore, irrespective of the new housing targets, the most recent Environment Agency study of the Ver since the implementation of the alleviation of low flow scheme in the early 1990s shows that the river is still falling. Despite an effort to conserve our scant water resources by having a hosepipe ban last year that lasted for 10 out of 12 months, our rivers are still falling. If those rivers fail, as they frequently do in periods of drought, even with current demands for water, the whole biodiversity and fragile ecology of the area will ultimately begin to fail. Does the Minister even begin to appreciate the ecological and environmental vandalism that the new housing target proposals will potentially wreak on the biodiversity of Hertfordshire and of my beautiful constituency?

The Minister does not address the current infrastructure and environmental deficit of the hot-spot areas, such as St. Albans, where many thousands of houses are to be built. She does not seem to recognise that simply putting in green building measures for the new homes will not solve all the attendant pollution issues of the existing housing stock and the occupants of that housing stock. It is crucial, if we are to have a degree of intergenerational environmental legacy, for us to look at the environment in which the houses are to be placed, to assess and evaluate the current environmental pressures, and to calculate the impact that those new houses and occupants will have on the established community and that environment.

That is not a cutting-edge environmental objective when considering housing totals for growth areas. Over the years we have had a long series of worthy recommendations from various committees urging us to consider the impact of rapid building on the environment. The Minister must feel that the casual coupling of “sustainable” and “community” in recent reports means that the public will rest assured that the environment is being taken seriously and implies that the relevant assessments of the environmental capacity of the projected increase have been taken into account. But that is not the case. The process for determining the housing targets appears to be totally devoid of any rigorous environmental or even strategic assessment. The complete lack of strategic assessment has led to the Government’s erroneous belief that proposed new floor figures of at least 83,000, and possibly 93,000, extra homes for Hertfordshire are environmentally sustainable.

The issue of housing targets has presented challenges for many years, particularly in the south and east, and I remind the Minister of a 1996 report from the Select Committee on the Environment which looked at the problem when considering housing need and housing targets. Crucially, that Committee noted an effort to ensure that housing targets were not being imposed in an unsustainable fashion without recognising the environmental impact, and it welcomed and encouraged the Government of the day’s intention to commission research into one important aspect, namely environmental capacity, with a view to producing good practice and guidance for future development programmes. That was a perceptive solution and a genuine attempt to ensure that any future communities were truly sustainable. Indeed, it was supported on a cross-party basis, so we might wonder how much note was made of that recommendation in light of today’s concerns about the environmental sustainability of the proposed housing targets.

In 1997, an exposition on the concept of environmental capacity entitled “Making sense of environmental capacity” was undertaken by Michael Jacobs for the Council to Protect Rural England. Mr. Jacobs may not be unknown to the Minister as he is currently advising the Government in his capacity on the council of economic advisers. Most tellingly, Mr. Jacobs pointed out then that

“if environmental capacity is taken seriously and assessed in detail, it would generate specific, quantifiable constraints in the volume and location of development.”

That is exactly why the Committee and the Government of the day recommended environmental capacity reports to ensure that housing targets were not too great or burdensome for any area. They are absolutely crucial and should be integral to this Government’s assessment of any increased housing targets for Hertfordshire.

If these studies had taken place, it would help to support any assertions from the Minister, which she made in the last debate, that the proposed changes to the draft plan represent a new benchmark in reconciling the growth need that we need with sustainability. Yet, only last week, I asked the Department for Communities and Local Government whether this Government prepare any studies on environmental capacity to accept any housing in particular areas in relation to regional spatial strategies. I was told:

“The Government does not prepare any such documents”,

and that

“the initial housing projections are based upon demographic and not environmental considerations.”

That is straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. The Government’s view is that if a number of people want to form households in that region, the housing has to be provided. It is not a case of whether the environmental capacity can endure it, but that the housing will be provided. The Department went on to say:

“The regional assembly has to take environmental factors into account in preparing the regional spatial strategy, but there is no single Government document providing guidance on how to estimate the environmental capacity of an area.”

There we have it: a new benchmark for the environment is to ignore it. If developers want to build, so be it, and our countryside can go to hell in a handcart.

How bizarrely perverse that according to the Minister’s own Department, we have a situation that when a draft regional spatial strategy has an examination in public by a planning inspector, the environmental argument underpinning the proposals may be challenged, but that would not be based on the Government’s environmental estimate, because the Government have not made one.

We accept that defining the environmental capacity of an area such as Hertfordshire is not easy. It is, after all, easy to measure the capacity of a road to accommodate traffic because we know how many cars can fit on to it, going at a certain speed with appropriate margins of safety. Helpfully, we can also measure the attendant pollution. That does not mean that we should not try to estimate and look for environmental capacity, but the Government are not even trying.

Pollution is a huge worry in my constituency and these ever-increasing housing targets are fuelling that concern. My constituents are fearful that the Government merely pay lip service to the evidence of congestion and increasing levels of local pollution. According to the RAC, the stretch of the M25 between junctions 20 and 21, which runs over my constituency, is among the most congested in Britain. It does not take the skills of a highways engineer to realise that that situation, compounded by the M1 and the A1(M), results in a toxic U-shape around St. Albans, with the M10 piercing the city, bringing much heavy congestion and pollution.

I apologise for not being here for the whole of my hon. Friend’s speech, but I was in the main Chamber on a very important matter for my constituents—pensions.

With congestion comes accidents, and with accidents come injuries. The Government do not accept that if they impose thousands and thousands of homes on Hertfordshire, particularly in the Hemel Hempstead and St. Albans area, the closing of the Hemel Hempstead acute services will put at risk the lives of the people who move into our region.

My hon. Friend may be aware, as I am, of what happened the other week when the M1 suffered a complete, three-lane failure as a result of a crane crashing across it. That led to much of the traffic on the M25 trying to pass through my constituency. Based on the congestion that day, I would have hated to have had to try to get somebody to any accident and emergency service, but particularly to those in Watford.

The people who were, sadly, injured in that crash went to the Hemel Hempstead A and E, which is about to be closed.

Unfortunately, that happens to be the A and E that served my constituency as well. I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend.

According to the RAC, the stretch of motorway to which I referred is among the most congested in the country. The situation brings pollution to the heart of my city and cars end up spilling on to the A414, which is the busiest non-motorway road in the county, so we are pretty congested. Commenting on the Government’s house building agenda and specifically the housing targets proposed for Hertfordshire, the RAC report on motoring observed that the new emphasis on building new homes puts even more pressure on the road network.

Let us say that we listen to the Minister’s siren calls for ever higher housing targets and accept the new household projection figure of 508,000 proposed by her and combine them with car ownership data based on the average car ownership figure of 1.34 cars for Hertfordshire, as published in the 2001 census. I sincerely hope that the Minister has done the maths, because I have. I suspect that she may not, but let me help her. We are talking about an extra 680,000 cars on our already congested roads. That is madness and a pollution nightmare. Can she try to imagine the impact of nearly three quarters of a million extra cars in our area? If so, can she imagine the grossly damaging effect that that would have on the environment?

The Minister may wish to ponder the sobering fact that according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2004, out of 47 Government office areas, St. Albans has the fourth highest combined road and domestic carbon dioxide emissions, and the situation is set to deteriorate even further under the proposals.

The environment is multifaceted, with often strong but complex links between constituent parts. Fortunately for Hertfordshire, we have valuable swathes of green belt, which are the lungs of our county. However, a landscape is a reflection of many factors, including the underlying geology, and there are worrying trends in the landscape in Hertfordshire. Water supply is under great strain. Three Valleys Water recognises that housing growth on the scale proposed by the Government will pose significant challenges. Challenges of water supply, as I have already identified, face the River Ver, but there are additional challenges on water supply.

However, the Government persist in ignoring all the committees that have pointed out the flawed approach to housing proposals in the growth areas. In 2000, the Government’s response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s 21st report stated:

“In the past, the risks of damage to the environment have too often been overlooked or given too little weight when pursuing economic and social policies”.

No change there then, is there?

A report by the Environmental Audit Committee in 2005, “Housing: Building a Sustainable Future”, examining the Government’s housing projection totals, slammed the Government’s complacency on the environmental impact of the housing targets. It said:

“It is astounding that despite the clear need for an assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposals for the Growth Areas as a whole, nothing has been done to date by the ODPM”—

the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—

“or DEFRA to address this issue.”

The same report went on to say:

“The Government agrees with the Committee that assessments of the environmental impacts of a step change in housing supply are important. That is why every element of the Growth Areas proposals will be subject to a Sustainability Appraisal”.

What the Government do not mention is that that is not their sustainability appraisal; they will be asking people outside to do their own appraisals.

Let me remind the Minister yet again of the remarks from her Department. It said that the Government view is that if a number of people want to form households in that region, the houses will be built. I totally disagree with that approach and I dispute the Minister’s new housing figures and the process by which they were arrived at.

I know that other hon. Members want to speak, and I shall conclude my remarks soon, but before I do so I want to draw the Minister’s attention to early-day motion 1288, signed by some of my colleagues here today, and urge her to abandon the new totals, with all the environmental implications, and formally request that the Government reinstate the conclusions reached in July 2006 by the panel in the final draft of the plan and thus accept the lower total that we believe we can deliver in Hertfordshire.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate and on her very cogent and powerful speech in defence of the environment in Hertfordshire in general and in St. Albans in particular. One of her most potent arguments related to the fact that the Government have not carried out environmental capacity studies, despite the fact that they were advised to do so by the Environment Committee and by their advisers, and despite the fact that they have accepted that as necessary in the past. I hope that the Minister will respond explicitly to that point, and explain why the Government have not done so. In the meantime, I endorse my hon. Friend’s call for the Government to abandon the latest increased targets for house building in Hertfordshire until such studies have been carried out, to assess whether there is the environmental capacity to take this extra house building.

We also know that the Government have not agreed to finance the additional infrastructure that this house building would require. I remind the Minister that Hertfordshire is already the most densely populated county outside London. Its roads are the most overcrowded and busy in any county, because they bear not only the traffic generated by this dense population but more traffic passing through the county than that faced by any other. The secondary schools, certainly in my area, are all already oversubscribed. The hospitals face closures, including ward closures and the downgrading of half the major general hospitals in Hertfordshire, and yet more need and more demand for them would arise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) pointed out.

We know already that the water services face immense pressure, and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans pointed out the problems that will be faced if extra housing is built. We also have a shortage of green space. That green space has been preserved and protected by the green belt, and the Government propose to lift that protection, to move the boundaries of the green belt further north and to expand it to compensate for the loss of green belt in Hertfordshire, by designating some land under no serious pressure somewhere north of King’s Lynn.

Finally, as I intend to be brief, we need to know the reasons for this additional housing. There are two reasons why extra housing would be needed: one is an increase in population, and the other is a decline in household size so that the same number of people need more houses. As I understand it, the Government are saying that virtually all the extra houses are the result of a projected decline in household size. It is quite true that more houses are needed if you have an unchanged population and a declining household size. However, such extra houses will not impose the same infrastructure requirements as the house building that is required to house additional people. The same number of people are living in smaller households. They do not need so much extra water, schools or, we would hope, hospitals.

I find it interesting that the Government have also done no real assessment of the unit size of houses that are being built, so that is developer-led. Lots of flats are being built, which is not necessarily what communities want. In Hertfordshire, we have an ageing population in many places, and older people do not want to live in high-rise blocks of flats; they often want low-rise accommodation, possibly bungalows. We also have a shortage of accommodation for people with disabilities. I feel that all we are doing is bowing down—on the Government’s targets and the relaxation of planning regulations—and having the homes and properties that developers wish to give us. They fulfil housing target densities, but do not deliver the mixed communities that we all want to see our residents living in.

I agree entirely. We need to know the causes of the extra housing targets because they will influence the nature of that housing and the size of the units that we need to build, and therefore the nature of the communities created. It is important that we get an answer, finally, from the Government as to why the housing targets are constantly rising. Are they expecting an accelerating decline in household size? Is that the sole factor lying behind house building or is it, as most of the public assume, because more people are expected to be coming to live in Hertfordshire?

It is my belief, and I have said this before, that the housing growth in Hertfordshire—perhaps a third of the total growth—is largely due to an increase in the population. That increase is not because the birth rate exceeds the death rate in the area, but because more people are moving into it. They are moving in not from the rest of the United Kingdom—from the north, Scotland and Wales—but from London. The increase is not the direct consequence of immigration from abroad—relatively few immigrants move direct into Hertfordshire—but the indirect consequence. Very large numbers of people come to live in London. The substantial bulk of the flow from abroad comes to live in London, and then Londoners of all ethnicities move out to the home counties. That is the pressure that we are facing. If that is the case, that has different consequences for the number, the size and nature of houses that we need to build. The Government should come clean on whether that is what they envisage happening.

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis up to a point, and there is a significant out-migration issue from London, but is there any academic verification for his assertion that immigration is to blame? The only reference I can find is from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which said that out-migration was largely due to natural household growth, growth in the existing population, and older and more affluent households moving out to the urban fringe, and not due to immigration.

On the contrary, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the Joseph Rowntree study and the source of that information—the principal demographers in this country are based in East Anglia and Cambridge—he will find that the pressure of immigration from abroad is leading to the net outflow from London to the home counties. I refer him to a pamphlet, written by myself, that lucidly explains all that. It is called “Too Much of a Good Thing?” It is available for £15 from the Centre for Policy Studies or free on my website. I show the original figures, which have been updated, and they suggest that for the country as a whole, a quarter of all new households—the Government put it at a third—are likely to be due to net immigration from abroad.

As I said before, that is not net immigration direct into Hertfordshire. It is into London and then out. We need to know those figures if we are to understand the nature of the problem and cope with it accordingly. I am afraid that we have had 17 statements from Housing Ministers over the years, and not one of them has even mentioned the issue. I only return to it because of course every time I do, they try to shut me up. As often as they try to shut me up, I will return to the subject. I hope that as a result we shall get more information out of this debate than we have out of previous debates on the subject.

May I add my commendations to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) not only for securing this timely debate—we had one in January but this comes after the conclusion of the formal consultation—but for her excellent identification of another one of the failings of the approach that the Government have taken to the whole issue.

When we consider local housing targets, it is important to remember one of the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), that Hertfordshire is already one of the most densely populated shires in England—I think that it shares that title with Surrey. Given that it has a million people or so, it is no surprise that the Government’s target of up to 93,200 more houses by 2021 has caused the gravest concern. In practice, that would mean 200,000 additional people, which is another 20 per cent., in just 15 years. It is an unprecedented scale of development, and following my right hon. Friend’s remarks, I must say that it is completely out of step with local need.

Ministers love to claim that in Hertfordshire we are against all new development and housing—that we oppose every last brick being placed on another. They are completely wrong. We recognise the need for more homes. Our local authorities have consistently ensured that homes have been built to meet local need. During the past 20 years, East Hertfordshire district council in my constituency has enabled more homes to be built than any neighbouring authority. Since 2001, some 2,140 homes have been built in my district, unlike in neighbouring Harlow in Essex, for example, where just 810 were constructed. We will take no lectures from Ministers on that particular subject. We build while they talk.

We believe, however, that development must be sustainable. It must be underpinned by funded infrastructure, and it must be planned democratically. Sadly, the changes to the panel’s recommendations proposed by the Secretary of State and made to the east of England plan failed on all three counts. Take sustainability, for example. Clearly, a key objective in any natural housing proposal would be for housing and employment targets to equate, yet the Secretary of State wants housing for over 17,000 more people than there will be jobs for.

Take the vital issue of water and sewerage. The panel’s experts made it clear that local development in our area must be delayed because of serious capacity problems, yet as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans pointed out, the Minister has simply ignored them, saying that the problem could be “overcome with time”. I look forward to seeing the water engineer who can use time to overcome water problems involving piping arrangements and so on. It will be a masterful exercise.

The truth is that the Government have no plan to address existing water problems. They are making no attempt to realise the fundamental obstacle that those problems will create for any new development, never mind one that meets the Minister’s higher targets. If they had come forward and said, “We recognise the issue, we recognise the problem and we will invest money to sort out”—for example—“the Rye Meads sewage works,” we might have considered it and tried to help. But no—instead, we get platitudes such as “overcome with time”.

When I was at the east of England plan, I was told that the water issue was a logistical one, because there was a statutory obligation to supply water. That—just piping—does not address the impact of the abstraction of the water on the fragile ecosystem. The Government seem to have refused to address that point, looking simply at the engineering issues surrounding water supply.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I cannot understand why Ministers are being so foolish. They could make their own jobs easier if they dealt with such matters and analysed them in a professional way. Instead, we get platitudinous nonsense that does not solve the problem for any of us. We wish to be co-operative in this matter, but are unable to do so when we receive that kind of advice.

That is not the only issue on which we feel that the Government have failed. There is the question of Harlow North. The Secretary of State proposes that that speculative development should proceed, and that instead of the original idea of 10,000 houses on the site—which, I should add, is 3,000 acres of green fields—there should now be up to 20,000 houses. Given that the scheme has been rejected twice by the planning process and was completely removed by the Minister’s own panel, why does she now believe that Harlow North should proceed?

Then there is infrastructure. When presented with the initial list of key projects, which included improvements to the roads and railways that we have heard are so congested, the Chancellor refused to fund more than 75 per cent. even of those initial schemes. In other words, the Government would like us to have 200,000 more people in Hertfordshire, but they are prepared to pay for infrastructure for only 50,000. That is just the basic capital project. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) mentioned, our schools, hospitals and essential services are not being improved. They are being squeezed and in some cases closed.

If the substance of the Government’s housing plans is poor, the way that they have been imposed is even worse. Frankly, it is a tale of incompetence and political chicanery. I wish principally to focus my remarks on how that plan and the housing targets in it were set. We have heard about the failure to provide an appropriate environmental capacity study, but that was not the only failing. First, the consultation process was fundamentally flawed. The East of England regional assembly failed to print and distribute sufficient copies of the plan on which it was supposedly consulting. The result was the nonsense whereby in Bishop’s Stortford, for example, a town of 35,000 people, we were provided with—

No, they were generous. We got two copies of the plan in the library, which caused something of a challenge. It was a 300-page document and people had to queue to see a document that was meant to be publicly available, until some of us shouted and screamed sufficiently loudly. We were told, “Well, this is fine, it’s available on the internet.” Does that mean that people who are not on the internet are not entitled to be consulted? It was a failure of process that was repeated in Hertford, Ware, evidently in St. Albans, and across the region. The regional assembly then withdrew its support for the plan after Ministers’ promises to fund the infrastructure proved to be false. Yet the Government pressed ahead, and the result was the legal nonsense of a plan that was not supported by the body responsible for producing it.

Perhaps the worst example of the shoddy way in which the plan was railroaded through was the episode of the Housing Minister and Harlow North. When the Government-appointed panel of inspectors considered the plan last year, it recognised all the problems of the speculative scheme. Those experts strongly and expressly recommended on 19 June that the new town should not be included in the regional plan. Some people disagreed; the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell) said that it was unfair and that he wanted to put an alternative to the Government. Of course, as my hon. Friends know, the Government’s own planning rules preclude that. Planning policy statement 11 states that in the period between the panel reporting and the Government responding, any representations would

“undermine the whole examination process and be prejudicial to other participants”.

Thus, until the Government publish their changes, Ministers should receive no representations. Fair enough. Regrettably, the Housing Minister apparently breached that rule, as on 13 July she met the hon. Member for Harlow specifically to discuss housing. In December the Government overturned their own inspectors’ recommendations and reinstated the new town in the plan.

I have raised the issue in the House on several occasions, and all the way through the Government have defended themselves by saying that the junior Minister, who is with us today, is responsible for making the decisions, not the Housing Minister. That defence was meant to distract me from two crucial points. First, the rules do not refer to who makes the decision. They say that no representation should be received by the Government. The Minister for Housing and Planning meeting a local Member of Parliament to discuss housing between the panel’s decision and the Secretary of State’s announcement is clearly a representation. The fact that that Minister will not publish her papers from that meeting, despite requests from constituents under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, on the grounds that she was “engaged in making policy”, only confirms the pertinence of the meeting.

The second point shows Ministers in a worse light. The junior Minister tells us that she is responsible for the east of England plan. Note the present tense—she is responsible for it now. But was she the responsible Minister last July when that crucial meeting took place? To find out, I tabled named day questions for answer on 3 March. Three weeks later—silence from the Department. With the help of the Leader of the House, on the day on which the House rose for Easter, I was finally able to force an answer from the Department. The junior Minister was put in charge of the east of England plan in October—three months after the Housing Minister discussed housing with the Member of Parliament for Harlow. No wonder they did not want to answer my questions.

The housing targets set out in the plan are of great concern to my constituents. Imagine, Lady Winterton, that in your constituency you were to have a new town forced on you, with 25,000 houses on 3,000 acres of green fields, opposed by every parish, town, district and county councillor, which 25,000 people opposed in the consultation. Some 5,000 people in this consultation have said no, yet the Government seek to railroad the plan through by bending and twisting the rules.

My constituents firmly believe that the meeting last July breached the planning rules and in doing so undermined the examination process. That prejudicial action, along with the failure to consult adequately, the absence, as we heard, of an environmental capacity study and the resulting decision to designate a specific development, is grounds for saying that the plan and the housing targets that it includes are fundamentally flawed. If people now challenge the plan, it will be because they wish to see due process, open and transparent governance, and sustainable and deliverable housing targets. On all those counts, the Government, and particularly the group of Ministers that I mentioned, have failed, and they should be held to account.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing a debate on this important subject. As a fellow member of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—now the DCLG—I know that she understands well the frustrations and challenges of this sensitive area of policy. The issues raised by a debate on housing in Hertfordshire have implications for counties such as my own of Gloucestershire and, indeed, for the whole country.

The background to the issue is that we face multiple crises, including a crisis in housing affordability and an impending environmental disaster. On housing affordability, the situation is worst for those on low incomes and new home buyers, and it is acute for those in otherwise prosperous areas such as Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation study suggests that housing costs in the south of England now take up 40 per cent. of the average earnings of first-time buyers, compared with only 25 per cent. in Scotland. It also suggests that 50 per cent. of younger working households cannot afford to buy a first home in the south of England.

The environmental crisis is also acute, and reference must be made to that, too. The implications of climate change are well known, and I shall not rehearse them today, but the problem in the UK is that emissions are still rising. CO2 emissions have increased by 2.5 per cent. since the Government came to power, adding to the 6 per cent. of global cumulative greenhouse gas emissions that the UK has already produced and the 14 per cent. of current emissions for which the EU is collectively responsible. These days, people often seem to think that we can escape our responsibilities simply by pointing to the emissions of countries such as China and India, but I am afraid that this country’s collective and historic responsibility is still great.

As the Select Committee knows, the Government’s response to the housing crisis has been distinctly one dimensional. Increasingly, it relies overwhelmingly on simply expanding the supply of housing in areas of predicted and current high demand, such as Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire—the so-called predict and provide strategy. Obviously, that delights many commercial developers, for whom building urban extensions around affluent towns such as St. Albans and Cheltenham is more profitable than regenerating inner cities, providing struggling rural communities with small developments that might benefit them as they try to keep their schools and shops open, or providing more housing in lower-income counties such as Cornwall, where an acute affordability crisis is being fuelled by second homes.

In its report last June, the Select Committee touched on issues such as second homes and other factors beyond the basic supply of housing. For instance, we commented on affordability in rural areas, saying:

“The level of demand for private housing in some rural areas fuelled by migration from elsewhere in the UK and the desire for second homes exceeds the potential supply to the extent that any increase in house-building would be unlikely to affect affordability. The provision of social rented and affordable housing is therefore particularly important in these areas. We recommend that the Government increases its allocation to the Housing Corporation for rural areas.”

I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether that has yet happened.

Those comments point to several factors beyond the basic supply of houses, including the balance between social and market housing. They raise the issue of migration, which the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) mentioned. They also touch on the desire for second homes.

On the balance between social and market housing, there has been a dramatic shift since the 1970s, when only 50 per cent. of the population were home owners. Today, that figure is 70 per cent.

Obviously, the Conservative policy of right to buy, I am afraid, contributed to that shift, which has undermined the social housing sector. However, the change has not just taken place under the Conservatives. Since 1998, 408,000 social housing units have been sold off and only 180,000 built. Therefore, the right to buy has not been balanced, as it needs to be, with building and buying of new social housing. Also, as credit has been extended ever more unrealistically by mortgage lenders, house prices have continued to rise. It is critical that, as well as examining issues of supply, the Government address issues on the demand side, in particular reinvigorating the social housing sector and examining the mix of tenures.

Migration is also a factor. I will not dwell on that issue much, as the right hon. Gentleman has already discussed it at length. However, I repeat my disagreement with his view that the original cause is international immigration. In fact, I think that household growth, population growth from within the existing population and the flight of older, more affluent households are the key factors.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that people who come here from abroad do not live in houses, or do not form households? Roughly 200,000 more people come to live here every year than return abroad or emigrate. If they live in households that are bigger in size than the average—say, three people per household rather than two and a quarter—he will be able to work out that that requires 67,000 houses a year.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course, I am not saying what he suggests that I am saying. The critical issue is this: why are the people who are moving to counties such as Hertfordshire and other south-eastern counties moving out of London? He suggests that it is because of immigration. I have never seen convincing evidence that that is the case. I suppose that, if the immigration were not happening, one would see more supply—perhaps empty housing—in large urban areas, as one does in the north of England, where the immigration may not be happening to the same extent. The question is not whether the immigration is happening, but why do people move? I do not see any evidence that it is immigration that is causing them to move.

We have already briefly touched on the issue of second homes. They are certainly a factor in some areas. The Liberal Democrat proposal is to examine both planning permission and including second homes in the business rate to discourage their proliferation and the perverse effect that they have on some local housing markets.

I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s proposals on second homes. We all appreciate the particular problems that are faced by individuals and local authorities in certain parts of the world, not least Cornwall. However, can he tell me precisely how a planning regime would designate a second home? What would happen if someone wished to change the registration of their primary residence and their secondary residence? Who would be responsible for monitoring that change of use? Also, what appropriate planning regime would restrict development in such areas, and what impact would that have on the tourist economy?

Given that the subject of the debate is housing in Hertfordshire, I will not get distracted into that subject. I will happily send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the Liberal Democrat White Paper when we get into government and seek to implement the policy in that much detail.

If I can move on, housing supply is obviously a major factor, but it is not the only factor. Therefore, a massive increase of supply should not dominate Government policy in the way that it does. I will give way for the last time.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has the same problem in Cheltenham that we have in St. Albans, which is that people buy many homes. We cannot just say that we will have a tax on second homes. Some people that I know have portfolios of eight, nine or 10 homes. For example, if there are three or four people in a family household, there is nothing to say—we know because we have explored this in the Select Committee—that each of those household members could not be registered for each of those homes. It is a little disingenuous just to say that a tax on a second home would work. In St. Albans, it would not solve the problem, because the property market is so lucrative that people buy property portfolios and keep properties to rent them out on the highly lucrative buy-to-let market.

Before I call Mr. Horwood again, perhaps Members would note that interventions should be relatively brief and not speeches in themselves.

I am very grateful, Lady Winterton. However, just in reply to the hon. Lady, I think that she is slightly confusing buy-to-let with second homes. In counties such as Cornwall, second homes lie vacant for large parts of the year. That was the issue that I was seeking to address.

As I was saying, housing supply is obviously a major factor, but not the only one. I do not think that it should dominate Government policy to the extent that it does, not least because it might not work. That is another point that we emphasised in our Select Committee report last year. The Select Committee concluded that:

“A simple supply and demand model cannot be applied uncritically to the behaviour of the housing market and house prices. The particular nature of the housing market makes it very difficult to be certain about the effect which a certain level of increase in supply will have on prices and thereby affordability…

It is unclear what impact the Government’s objective to increase house building to 200,000 by 2016 would have on affordability.”

We concluded:

“There are many factors, other than supply, which affect the affordability of housing. The Government needs to examine a range of strategies which might influence demand such as interest rates, the availability of credit and taxation, as possible approaches to stemming price rises and improving affordability.”

My point is that it is one thing to say that we need more housing, but it is quite another to continue to rely arbitrarily on a massive increase in supply as the only, or dominant, policy tool in addressing the issues of affordability, especially when, as hon. Members have pointed out, the policy also has grave implications for the environment, sustainability and infrastructure.

Another obvious demand factor is regeneration—in other words, trying to rebalance the scales between areas of high demand, like St. Albans and others in Hertfordshire, and areas which are less well off. I have to acknowledge that the Government have made serious efforts on that front, including the recent announcement in Gloucestershire of significant regeneration money for Gloucester city, which I hope will rebalance the local housing market there. However, the Government risk undermining that with the market-led approach to house building.

One of the most interesting pieces of evidence that the Select Committee received when considering its report was from the West Midlands regional assembly, which said:

“The West Midlands is seeking to halt the out migration of households from the conurbation. The proposed approach by ODPM is market led with the potential for increased development on Greenfield sites in areas of high demand.”

It went on to say that it feared that

“ODPM proposals will undermine developer confidence in the growth of the Major Urban Areas and lead to demands for an ever increasing rural residential land release and further out migration to the Shire Counties. This approach would be highly unsustainable and wholly against the principles of the West Midlands RSS.”

I find it strange that I am arguing with a Labour Minister that the Government are too slavishly in hock to market forces, but that seems to be the case.

I rise simply because I want to commend the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I will be brief, Lady Winterton. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in my constituency, the Government’s proposal is to build a new town, supposedly with the aim of regenerating part of Essex, which is across the border in another district? The argument that he has just made is exactly parallel to that. Does he agree that it is nonsense to argue, as the Government do, that building a new town in one county will somehow regenerate another town in another county?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was not aware of that and I agree with him. The emphasis on building new houses has a particular environmental impact, because it takes the equivalent of some 25 tonnes of carbon to build a new house as opposed to 1 tonne or 2 tonnes to refurbish an existing one. All other things being equal, it is environmentally a much better idea to refurbish and re-use rather than to build new.

The other supply-side issue that I was going to mention is the scandalous number of empty homes. The latest figures that I could find were for October 2005, where the estimate was that there are 723,000 empty homes. Why, therefore, have the Government not taken more policy initiatives on that front? Why have VAT rates, for example, for greenfield developments, for which the rate currently stands at 0 per cent, not been harmonised with those for the repair, modernisation and conversion of existing properties, where work currently attracts VAT at 17.5 per cent.? That would at least encourage some developers to look at bringing more rundown empty houses back into the market.

The environmental impact of all that is clear. Hon. Members have referred to the impact on the water table and the local rivers in Hertfordshire. I understand that the River Ver is under great pressure and that other local rivers quite often run dry as a result of over-extraction. I have also referred the carbon cost of new build as opposed to the re-use of existing housing. There is also the issue of the impact on environmentally friendly forms of transport. I understand from local campaigners that First Capital Connect trains are already full to bursting and that, as the hon. Member for St. Albans pointed out, the A414 is often severely congested. Transport, congestion and pollution are obviously serious environmental threats and I share her alarm regarding those issues.

We are facing such an onslaught because the Government’s instincts are always to overrule from the centre, not to listen to local people, and scarcely to listen to environmental arguments. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) has offered a forensic analysis of the flaws in the process by which the numbers were arrived at, but the bald facts are that the East of England regional assembly said that it would propose 478,000 new houses—an enormous number—for the east of England. That figure has been more or less arbitrarily increased to 508,000, which may bring the total for Hertfordshire itself to perhaps as high as 100,000 new houses on top of a total existing housing stock of only 500,000. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is a 20 per cent. increase in a relatively short time.

Hon. Members who have spoken so far were right to reject the accusation of nimbyism. I have always considered nimby a childish playground taunt that is used to attack people who are defending their quality of life. Let no one accuse the Liberal Democrats of nimbyism. The Liberal Democrats in Hertfordshire support at least 70,000 new houses in the county—just like I have supported 8,500 new houses in my constituency. I accept that such housing will inevitably be at a higher density than existing housing, but when the Government constantly ratchet up those numbers, we move from development to overdevelopment, which often means overflowing into the green belt. However, this is not just a green belt against non-green belt issue. I am all for an intelligent review of the green belt and there may be areas of the green belt that can be looked at. I do not have an example that is local to Hertfordshire, but in Gloucestershire I strongly support the inclusion of valued green land such as the so-called Leckhampton “white land” into green belt to provide more permanent protection from predatory developers. However, I fully recognise that that cannot always be a one-way process.

I was delighted to receive a letter from Cheltenham race course this morning, which said that a large area of one of its car parks is green belt land that could be usefully surrendered. It would probably be appropriate to use that particular land for a hotel rather than housing, but it shows that green belt land can be intelligently reviewed and that within existing green belt designation, significant brownfield sites that would be appropriate for housing can be found.

Unless a designated brownfield site has been specifically ring-fenced within a green belt, it is part of the green belt and it does not matter whether it is scruffy or unattractive as it performs the useful purpose of stopping coalescence. I caution against advocating building on parts of such land.

The hon. Lady is right up to a point in that an important role for green belt is preventing coalescence, but she is utterly unrealistic in saying that we must have a blanket policy of never building on anything in the green belt. That is hopelessly unrealistic in the current circumstances. I was not at all advocating abandoning the green belt as I strongly support the principles of the green belt and perhaps even a net increase in it. I was saying that an intelligent approach must be taken and that green belt should not be swept aside on the arbitrary whim of the Secretary of State and the Government, who are in pursuit of an unsustainable, unpopular and fundamentally unnecessary policy of overdevelopment.

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, I wish to point out that we have half an hour left for the other two Front-Bench speakers and it would perhaps be helpful and fair to them if he brought his remarks to a conclusion in a moment.

Thank you for that guidance, Lady Winterton. I was bringing my remarks to a conclusion, but I have had to deal with a large number of interventions.

In conclusion, the Liberal Democrats support and applaud cross-party campaigns run by local campaigners and politicians who oppose overdevelopment in Hertfordshire. We support the “No Way to 10K” campaign in Welwyn Hatfield, which was initiated by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). I know that he too has signed the “Hands off Herts” online petition that is on the Prime Minister’s website. The petition was initiated by my good friend, Sandy Walkington, who is a passionate and well informed local campaigner in St. Albans. That online petition is one of the top petitions by number on the Prime Minister’s website and we, too, support it. I urge all local residents to log on and to sign up, including the hon. Member for St. Albans, who, I think, has not yet signed. I hope that she will confirm that she will do so today.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, and it is delightful to see you in the chair. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on initiating the debate; notwithstanding the closing comments of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I do not think that anyone could doubt my hon. Friend’s commitment and passion in defending the interests of her constituents and of the county of Hertfordshire in matters of housing and development. It is not through signing petitions, wherever those may be, but through passionate and coherent argument in this place and on doorsteps that a difference can be made. In the two years in which my hon. Friend has served as a Member of Parliament she has made a formidable difference.

I am happy to applaud many of the positive campaigns that the hon. Member for St. Albans has run. I was merely inviting her to sign the very popular local “Hands off Herts” petition, as the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield has done. Perhaps the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) would endorse that from the Conservative Front Bench now.

I am very careful not to stray beyond Surrey Heath when it comes to signing petitions, but I am always anxious to recognise effective campaigning work, and in that context in Hertfordshire there is no one better equipped than my hon. Friends the Members for St. Albans and for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) to teach us all about defending the interests of our constituents.

It is perhaps appropriate that we are debating housing in Hertfordshire this week and that we should note briefly the passing of Robert Jones, the former Member for Hertfordshire, West who was a Member of this House from 1979 to 1997 and served latterly for three years as a Minister in the Department of the Environment with specific responsibility for housing, planning and the environment. One of the themes of the debate has been the way in which those three issues are interconnected. Robert Jones was a model Member of the House, passionately committed to extending the free market principles on which his party had been elected, and at the same time defending the environment of the country that he loved. I know that many hon. Members will want to take the opportunity to attend his funeral, or indeed to write to his widow, and I am sure that we all want to pay tribute to the contribution that he made to his constituents, and the causes that he believed in.

All the speeches in the debate so far have been of very high quality. I mentioned the campaigning skill of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans. In her speech she passionately and effectively made the case for improved local democracy, and for taking account of quality-of-life considerations as well as economic ones when making housing and planning decisions. She also drew to the Minister’s attention very effectively the two key quality-of-life problems that her constituents face—the way in which flatted developments are eroding the historic character of St. Albans, which makes it such a cherishable place to live in, and crucially, the way in which environmental considerations do not have the status that they should have in the Government’s deliberations on housing and planning. That theme was picked up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). He rammed home the point that the Government have failed, in the matter of conducting suitable environmental capacity studies, to ensure that their plans for housing are genuinely sustainable.

That is not an argument that is restricted to Conservative Members. A former Minister for Housing and Planning, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), recently wrote something called “Blueprints for Green Homes: a Housing and Energy Policy for the 21st Century”. In it he asked what guiding principles should be the foundations of a progressive Labour housing policy. By asking that question he implied that the current housing policy was far from progressive. How did he answer it? He said:

“We should never again allow preoccupation with numbers to override issues of quality. Housing policy does not exist in a vacuum but must be developed together with wider economic, environmental and social policies to secure sustainability.”

That is at the heart of the case that my right hon. and hon. Friends have made. I know that it is fashionable on the Labour Benches to characterise Conservative Members of Parliament as nimbys, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) pointed out, in Hertfordshire a significant level of house building has been embraced—positively welcomed—by Conservative members and delivered by Conservative local authorities. As my hon. Friend—who, as a chartered surveyor, has a passionate commitment to the built environment—pointed out, it is Conservatives who build, whereas the Labour party prefers simply to condemn. We can see from the historical record that in every year in which the Conservatives were in power, more social and affordable housing was built than in any year in which Labour was in power. Only in the last two years has the level of market housing under this Labour Government come anywhere near the lowest level under the previous Conservative Government.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham has a sincere and long-standing commitment, which predates his entry into the House, to environmental matters, and those parts of his speech that touched on the environment were the most impressive. I welcome his sentiments, although not all the policy recommendations in his speech, and I am grateful for the way in which he acknowledged the campaigning energy that Conservatives in Hertfordshire have devoted to this cause.

Uniting all the comments from Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members so far in this debate has been scepticism about the way in which the Government seek to balance our genuine need for new housing with other criteria, specifically environmental, but more broadly quality-of-life issues. The Government tend to blame local authorities for the failure to meet housing targets and they argue that the only way in which to meet those targets is by ramping up the numbers that they lay down through their regional spatial strategies and other means. However, as I pointed out with reference to the number of houses built under this Labour Government relative to the number built under the previous Conservative Government, that centralised, statist and, with respect to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Stalinist approach simply has not worked. We know that it has been deleterious to the quality of life in areas such as Hertfordshire, but we also know that it has not brought on stream throughout the country the level of new housing development that we need. That is because our planning system at the moment is broken, overly bureaucratic and insensitive to both democratic and environmental needs.

Those are not my observations, although I passionately believe them; they are the observations of Kate Barker, who was commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to examine the planning system. She pointed out that under this Government planning has become hugely bureaucratic. The planning encyclopaedia is composed of 12,000 pages—eight volumes—backed up by 201 statutory instrument. That brings costs, not only for those who are attempting to navigate the planning system to defend their local environment, but for taxpayers. In one year, 2004-05, Departments, local government and other public bodies spent almost £100 million simply on planning consultants to negotiate the maze of red tape erected by this Government. No one benefits from that system.

I am quite surprised to hear the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman endorsing the views of Kate Barker. Does he also agree with her that

“It is not the role of local planning authorities to turn down development where they consider there to be a lack of market demand or need for the proposal. Investors who are risking their capital and whose business it is to assess likely customer demand are better placed than local authorities to determine the nature and scale of demand”?

As the hon. Gentleman spoke, I could hear the sounds of an elephant trap being constructed for me, and I shall not on this occasion blunder into it. I believe that Kate Barker is a very effective analyst of many of the problems in the planning system, but I disagree with her prescriptions for some of the things that she thinks we should do. I have raised those in a previous debate, and am happy to discuss them outside this Chamber.

One key point that the Government should acknowledge is that the whole plan-making process is uniquely centralised, and while the citizens and residents of Hertfordshire must live with those decisions, the power rests with the Secretary of State. The Government tend to blame local authorities and Conservative MPs as though the power rested in their hands, but Kate Barker says:

“England has a highly centralised system of land use regulation. There is extensive national policy on issues ranging from density levels to greenfield land targets. Plan-making processes and content are heavily regulated. The Secretary of State also has broad powers to make decisions on planning applications.”

Responsibility rests centrally, and it rests heavily on the Minister to ensure that environmental and quality-of-life considerations weigh with other social and economic factors. My hon. Friends have made a series of points to draw attention to the way in which Hertfordshire is suffering environmentally, and those considerations need to be rapidly brought back into balance.

I said that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford used to be a chartered surveyor, but I suspect that he missed his true profession. Having listened to him setting out the sorry tale of contact between the Minister for Housing and Planning and the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), I have concluded that he should really have been a prosecuting barrister. I, and the whole House, would be very interested to hear the Minister’s explanation of what seems to the Opposition to be a prima facie breach of good practice—or, in the terms used by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans, a stitch-up. Can she unstitch that now?

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on obtaining the debate. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) is here. In January he secured a debate on housing targets in Hertfordshire, and we have continued that debate today. It is a little unfortunate that some of the myths that were expounded then and to which I responded have nevertheless entered this debate, but I shall endeavour to respond to as many points as possible. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me as I set out the necessary explanations, as I did on the last occasion. I shall take interventions towards the end of my contribution if there are issues that I have not dealt with.

Someone with a house that overlooks the countryside might have a different set of priorities from someone whose aspirations for a home have not yet been met. One of the Government’s central dilemmas in dealing with housing is that building houses is unpopular and meets enormous resistance.

I ask hon. Members to consider the following:

“Whenever plans are submitted, or housing allocations in the home counties or further afield are published, there is resistance because people genuinely feel that there is a cost to be paid in terms of land being taken. The answer must be to build on the so-called brown-field sites, but to say that every element of housing need can be satisfied in that way is not only extremely prescriptive but puts more housing on those sites than they can sustain.” —[Official Report, 18 July 1996; Vol. 281, c. 1387.]

Those are not my words, but those of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) a little more than 10 years ago, which he used in response to the Environment Committee, itself the subject of comments by the hon. Lady. It demonstrates that housing issues and dilemmas have not greatly changed.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is an experienced speaker who makes his points well, but one gets the impression that prior to 1997 everything was well in the housing world. The Government inherited a £19 billion backlog of repairs for social housing; 2 million houses had failings in basic decency standards; more than 1,800 people were sleeping rough; and families were living in bed and breakfast accommodation. Tackling those problems has been enormously important and a great deal of progress has been made.

On specific issues relating to Hertfordshire, consultation on the Government’s proposed changes to the draft plan ended in March. For reasons of propriety, I cannot engage in a debate about potential further changes before Ministers have carefully considered all the views that were expressed. However, I shall reiterate the rationale for the level of growth not just in Hertfordshire but in all parts of the region and nationally. I also want to put the record straight on the situation in Hertfordshire.

In the winter of 2005-06, an independent panel held an examination in public to test the soundness of the draft east of England plan, which the regional assembly had produced after wide consultation. The panel endorsed the basic thrust of the draft plan, and the Secretary of State’s proposed changes build on that draft. However, the panel made a number of recommendations to improve the plan. It concluded that the case for higher growth had been made, based on population increase, housing needs, affordability and employment needs, and that growth must and could be reconciled with sustainability principles and environmental constraints.

Ministers accepted almost all of the panel’s detailed advice, including its housing proposals for all but one of the 47 districts. I accept that the panel’s recommendations for Hertfordshire are controversial, but it found that the draft housing proposals were unbalanced, and the figures for Hertfordshire in particular were too low.

What are the main reasons for higher growth? I outlined them in January, but they bear repetition. Government policy is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity of living in a decent home that they can afford. Kate Barker’s review of housing supply concluded that the housing market had not responded sufficiently to meet the needs of the country’s ageing and growing population. The Government’s response set a challenging ambition to increase the supply of new housing to at least 200,000 houses per annum by 2016.

The new 2004-based household projections, which indicate that household formation will average 223,000 annually to 2026, underline the urgent need to pursue our ambition and build more homes for this and future generations. Although good progress has been made—from a low of around 130,000 new homes in 2001-02, housing supply has increased to more than 180,000 in 2005-06—we clearly must maintain momentum.

The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden questioned the basis on which the figures have been put together. I will give a little more detail about the basis of the household projections from the 2004 study. About 8,000 of the 14,000 increase in annual household growth is attributable to an assumed increase in migration. The remaining 6,000 results from increases to the population due to higher life expectancy, changing age structure and higher household formation. Migration counts for about 33 per cent. of the household growth in the 2004-based projection.

House building needs to be increased in all regions. There is already an urban renaissance in northern and midland cities where full use is being made of brownfield land to support jobs and housing growth. For Hertfordshire, the latest forecast of future housing needs is at least 30 per cent. higher than the scale of development most of the local authorities will accept.

Will the Minister try to answer my point? This is not simply about the absolute numbers of houses. There are still more dwellings than households in this country, according to her Department’s statistics. It is about patterns of supply and demand. What other policies, apart from building more houses, is her Department producing?

There is a great deal going on in relation to that. I should be delighted to answer the hon. Gentleman in more detail in a debate on that subject, but the hon. Member for St. Albans has initiated a debate on housing figures in Hertfordshire and I want to concentrate on that specific issue.

No. I need to try to answer the questions that have been asked.

The issue is not just about numbers, but affordability. Housing affordability problems are acute in the south where, as elsewhere, the majority of households want to own their own home. Increasing numbers cannot afford to do so, including many key workers and families. In Hertfordshire, the ratio of average house prices to lower quartile household earnings is about 12:1, making it the most unaffordable county in the east of England. Many more homes are needed if local people are to find decent homes. Not building enough—a mix of rented housing, equity share, and homes for the majority who want to buy—will just make affordability problems worse.

What about the environment? As the panel pointed out, growth and living within environmental limits are not alternatives, but joint imperatives. The proposed changes to the draft plan represent that new benchmark in reconciling growth with sustainability. We have taken the panel’s recommendations one step further and propose to set in place stronger policies and clear targets to reduce water consumption, improve energy efficiency and drive up recycling of waste.

I am grateful to the Minister for rereading the report that I quoted earlier, but it does not explain the environmental capacity studies that need to be done and which the Government have obviously failed to address and do themselves.

If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I am just coming to that. I was paying attention to her speech. We take the environmental pressures of our house building programmes very seriously. Indeed, one of the benefits of the sustainable communities plan and growth areas is that housing growth can be handled strategically. That allows us to focus more on environmental implications. There is a well-established process for appraising the sustainability of housing plans, which is to prepare sustainability appraisals of regional and local plans. Those are tested thoroughly through the examination process, with inspectors making recommendations that take account of the sustainability—

On a point of order, Lady Winterton. Is it appropriate for the Minister simply to read out a report verbatim when hon. Members have asked specific questions? She is making no attempt to address the matters that have been raised.

Hon. Members have put a range of questions. They have asked about environmental assessments and I am responding to that.

If the hon. Gentleman would contain himself and listen, I might be able to make progress and he might get some of the answers that he seeks.

There is a well-established process for appraising the sustainability of housing plans. Those are tested thoroughly through the examination process, and inspectors make recommendations that take account of sustainability and other issues that are raised during the process. The Government’s response to the Barker review of housing supply was accompanied by a research report on the sustainability of additional housing scenarios in England. That covered the environmental impacts of things such as land take, construction materials, waste, energy and water, as well as wider sustainability issues such as the impact on local economies and communities.

The response to Barker was accompanied by a number of environmental measures, such as the announcement that 10 per cent. of growth in the newer growth areas would be devoted to green spaces, with plans for the newer growth points to be developed in conjunction with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency. Since then, we have been working on ways of ensuring that the environmental impacts of housing development are managed carefully—for example, by consulting on a timetable to zero carbon housing development by 2016; using areas of housing growth, such as Northstowe in Cambridgeshire, as environment exemplars; and announcing that the Government would consider proposals for new eco-towns.

It is not surprising that the issue of water has been raised. I understand concerns about water resources, especially as the east of England is our driest region, and I acknowledge the particular problem of low river flows in parts of Hertfordshire. However, it is people who use water, not houses. The Government, the water regulators, the water companies and communities working together have a shared responsibility to steward water resources and avoid waste to ensure that occupiers of existing and new housing have sufficient water supplies now and in future.

At national level, the Government have consulted on options for regulating for minimum standards of water efficiency in new homes and commercial buildings. Proposals for higher water standards are being taken forward through the new code for sustainable homes. The Environment Agency and water companies, as statutory consultees—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

The Environment Agency and water companies, as statutory consultees for both the regional spatial strategy and the local development frameworks, play an important role in informing planning authorities and independent inquiries at key stages of the plan-making process. Water companies have 25-year, forward-looking water-resource plans, which they review every five years and which are reviewed annually by the agency. The plans take into account the supply-and-demand balance for a specific area, and include new household growth and population changes as part of the planning process.

Referring specifically to the east of England, the Environment Agency’s technical work has indicated that sufficient water resources will be available to support the proposed level of growth, provided that significant water savings are achieved and planned new water infrastructure is put in place. The Government have proposed new regional targets on reducing per-capita water consumption and policies to ensure the timely provision of additional water infrastructure and a co-ordinated approach. That will include a programme of water-cycle and river-cycle studies to address water supply and waste-water treatment issues in different parts of the region.

We have heard a great deal about the lack of assessment and everything being centrally dictated. Nothing could be further from the truth. The regional assembly put together the proposals and undertook a sustainability appraisal, which was subject to consultation. The proposed changes were also subject to a sustainability appraisal, which showed the plan moving towards sustainability. The plan was particularly positive about the approach to carbon emissions and water.

Before the Minister moves off carbon emissions, which nearly slipped through, will she comment on my specific points about the M25 junctions 20 to 21, the M1, the A1(M), the A414 and the M10, all of which have significant pollution levels that are already considered to be unsustainable?

On transport and infrastructure generally, of course there are important issues about providing additional infrastructure support. We have already made substantial commitment to investment in the region through sources such as the growth area fund support for local delivery vehicles and the transport innovation fund. Those issues are clearly important and will be dealt with by the plans as we go forward.

The Government are committed to the principle of the green belt and propose no fundamental changes to policy, as I said last time we debated this. The green belt performs a vital role in containing urban sprawl, supporting urban regeneration, protecting the openness of the countryside and preventing coalescence between nearby towns. Any proposals to alter green belt boundaries must be pursued through the plan-making process and are subject to public consultation and inquiry, such as the recent examination in public into the draft east of England plan. Boundaries can only be changed in exceptional circumstances.

The Government are committed to minimising any loss of green belt to development. Policy remains to make best use of brownfield development opportunities before considering whether exceptional circumstances justify any release of green belt.

The proposal for Harlow North, which the Minister made in her changes to the draft plan, is based on using 1,500 acres of green belt. Are those exceptional circumstances?

The hon. Gentleman knows that for propriety reasons I am not able to comment on the proposals at the moment. I am setting out the general policy framework.

The hon. Gentleman can laugh about this, but it is an important issue. He has raised many questions about propriety and it is very clear that, as I said at the outset, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the proposed changes at this stage. He has raised many issues and we have responded.

No, I need to continue.

The Government are committed to minimising any loss of the green belt to development. Hertfordshire local authorities are to be commended for the way in which they have sought out and made best use of any opportunities to justify exceptional circumstances, but they know better than most the limits before problems of “town cramming” start to impinge on the quality of urban life. The pressing need for more housing coupled with the regeneration and wider sustainability benefits of expanding the new towns provides the exceptional circumstances that justify amending green belt boundaries in a small number of locations in Hertfordshire and Essex where major growth is to be concentrated.

Will Hertfordshire’s green belt be concreted over? As I said before, absolutely not. Only about 3 per cent. of Hertfordshire’s existing green belt will need to be built on to provide sufficient development land for the long term. The rest, some 97 per cent., will remain, and we are putting in place a stronger framework to make it greener and more accessible for recreation. There should be no question of towns merging together and losing their identity. National policy continues to be that green belts must prevent coalescence between nearby towns, and local decisions on green belt boundaries in Hertfordshire must respect that principle.

The Government’s targets for each English region are to maintain or increase the area designated as green belt. Since 1997, the amount of green belt land across the country has increased by 26,000 hectares. In Hertfordshire, the proposal is to extend the green belt by designating about three times the area that is proposed to be removed. Green belt is not being added for the sake of it, but to achieve sound planning objectives, to set clear long-term limits to development and to protect the surrounding areas from inappropriate development pressures.

Hon. Members asked about infrastructure. Central to our vision for sustainable communities is that development must be supported by the full range of infrastructure. We are proud of our track record of support for growth in the region, and we want to ensure that future investment is adequate, within the constraints of public expenditure.

In Hertfordshire, as elsewhere, the Government are working to achieve genuinely sustainable development to meet real housing and other development needs while respecting environmental limits.